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Wine is Great

Wine is great because of its almost limitless ability to surprise. When I began my MW studies a couple of years ago I thought that I knew something about wine (based on the logic that I’d made some, imported a bit, loved tasting etc). Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on whether you consider the status of my ego important) I have spent the last two years proving that I actually knew bugger all and that the more I tread my vinous path the more I feel dwarfed by the scale of what is revealed. Yet this is wine’s gift to us all. Being of the land means that changes of region, country and grape variety coupled with the producer’s ideology will result in difference. Some view difference as something to be tolerated, at best accepted, but those who know, know that difference should be cherished.

This brings me to Swartland in South Africa. Over the festive period I had a couple of bottles from Sequillo, a product of the revered Eben Sadie, one of the Southern Hemisphere’s great winemakers. They only produce two wines; the white based on Chenin Blanc and the red on Syrah. The ‘surprise’ experienced by me was a result of their finesse. These wines – the product of dry-grown, low yielding vines – ‘feel’ Rhone-like. I was expecting something concentrated but more blowsy than the taut (if still generous) nature of the fruit on show; they put many of the more expensive bottles of wine I had over Christmas to shame. There is no moral to this story other than a gentle reminder to keep your tongue turned on. Make 2015 the year you challenge your default choices.

Sequillo White, W.O Swartland 2012, 14%
Grape: 40% Chenin Blanc with the balance made up from Clairette, Viognier, Verdelho, Semillion Blanc & Gris
Wine-making: Matured in old oak and has a year on the lees
Note: Concentrated and with bright acidity that helps bring the apple, pear and quince fruit to life. Full but fine; a wine to savour.
Price: Approximately 25-30 USD
Score: 17.5/20
Available from: Not currently available in Taiwan 

Sequillo Red, W.O Swartland 2011, 14%
Grape: Syrah, Cinsault, Mouvedre, Grenache, Tinta Barocca & Carignan
Wine-making: Matured in old oak for 24 months
Note: Spiced red fruit, plum and some earthy savouriness. Persistent on the palate and with supple tannins that make this appropriate with or without food.
Price: 25-30 USD
Score: 17/20
Available from: Not currently available in Taiwan

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Something for the Weekend 13: Les Vins de Vienne

If I could only drink the red wine from one region of France then it would have to be the Northern Rhone. This home of Syrah produces wines that, when at their best, provide both grace and grunt; the Muhammad Ali of wine.

Les Vins de Vienne is a partnership between three heavyweights of northern Rhone wine-making: Yves Cuilleron, Pierre Gaillard and Francois Villard. They continue to operate their own estates but these long time friends formed a partnership back in the mid 1990’s whose intention was to revive vineyards that had fallen into disrepair. Their main focus was the vineyard of Seyssuel, a steep imposing series of terraces that sits across the river from Condrieu. Abandoned since Phylloxera had decimated the area in the late 19th century, research suggested that historically the wines from this vineyard had been very good. The replanting of this area has been a success but this is only part of this triumvirate’s tale. They have an extensive range of wines produced from the fruit grown in the 20 hectares they own supplemented by grapes bought from other quality-minded growers. They also run a small negociant business (they buy wine and bottle it under their label) that enables them to include the likes of the southern Rhone stalwarts; Chateauneuf du Pape, Gigondas and Vacqueyras in their portfolio.

However, it is their extensive collection of Syrah’s from their base in the Northern Rhone that best possess the ability to strike an emotional chord. It is usual to find vibrancy and verve in all of their bottlings from Crozes Hermitage in the south through to Cote Rotie in the north. The majority are available at very reasonable cost, a boon in this age of inflated price-tags, and for those in search of benchmark examples of the various crus, Les Vins de Vienne is a very good place to start.

Below are four of their wines tasted on the 26th of November 2014 in Taipei.

Crozes Hermitage, Les Palignons, 2011, 13%
Grape:
100% Syrah
Wine-making: Partial de-stemming, 16 months in French oak
Note: Overtly fruity (very Syrah) with cocoa and mocha. Approachable with supple tannins and freshness provided by a supporting seam of acidity.
Price: 1,500NT
Score: 16/20
Available from: Titlist

Saint Joseph, L’Arzelle, 2011, 13%
Grape:
100% Syrah
Wine-making: Partial destemming, 16 months in French oak
Note: Deep purple, smoked meat, plenty of dark fruit (blackberry dominates) and some spicy oak. Great purity and intensity coupled with its inherent litheness and persistence makes this delicious drinking over the medium term.
Price: 1,600NT
Score: 17/20
Available from: Titlist

Heluicum, IGP des Collines Rhodaniennes, 2011, 12.5% (Seyssuel)
Grape:
100% Syrah
Wine-making: Partial destemming, 10 months in French oak
Note: Delicate medium purple of hue, smoky with a touch of cocoa. Lovely lift provided by the acidity, elegant, supple tannins, sweet but bright red fruit style, almost Pinot like. Delicious.
Price: 1,500NT
Score: 17.5/20
Available from: Titlist

Sotanum, IGP des Collines Rhodaniennes, 2009, 13% (Seyssuel)
Grape:
100% Syrah (old vine)
Wine-making: Partial destemming, 16 months in French oak (50% New)
Note: Again some smoke, mineral, black and red fruit, mouth-coating tannins, dense but needs more time before it reveals its best.
Price: 2,400
Score: 16.5/20 (now) but capable of 17.5-18(?) if given another 5 years.
Available from: Titlist

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Chile: Still a Teenager?

Although Chile has been producing wine for many years, the drive to match grape variety to both soil and region with its raft of concomitant factors of aspect, altitude, fog etc, is a concept not much older than my teenage daughter. Like any adolescent, Chile is still in the throes of discovering itself, deciding through experience, some triumphs and the occasional mistake, what to do and how to be.

The move towards greater regional delineation within Chile is somewhat confusing. The division of the landscape into three zones that run north to south: Costa (coastal) Entre Cordilleras (between the mountain ranges i.e it’s the flat bit) and Andes; sounds straight-forward but isn’t. Many of the valleys where viticulture thrives, run from east to west resulting in the likes of Limari, Elqui and Aconcagua having vineyards in two if not all three of these zones. Yet any confusion around zonal identity has not prevented some Chilean regions from producing wines that do have a sense of place. This is the Holy Grail not just for winemakers but for those marketing the wine and ultimately us the consumer. Why? Because it makes buying wine easier. Most wine-drinkers know what to expect from their glass of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc or Barossa Shiraz; Chileans in Leyda or Casablanca want to create a similar situation where the name of their region is definitively linked to both style and variety/s.

In a recent tasting of wines from Chilean producer San Pedro, in the company of their engagingly frank and amiable winemaker, Gonzalo Castro, wines in their more premium range were clearly expressing a sense of place. Chile may not have, as of yet, the same number of iconic wine styles as do the likes of Australia and the USA but an increased focus on matching place and variety bodes well for the post-adolescent phase of the Chilean wine industry’s development.

Below are the three wines from this San Pedro tasting that I found most engaging.

1865 Single Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc, Leyda, 2014, 13.5%
Grape:
Sauvignon Blanc
Wine-making: Stainless steel
Note: Almost water white in colour with an overt, musk and passion-fruit character. Crisp acidity, fresh and with a moreish and palpable intensity.
Price: 1250NT
Score: 16/20
Available from: Finesse 02-2795-5615

1865 Limited Edition Blend, Cachapoal Valley 2011, 14.5%
Grape:
74% Cabernet Sauvignon, 21% Syrah
Wine-making: 100% French oak of which 60% was new.
Note: Fragrant with a slight herbal edge letting you know that Cabernet is present. Bright, sweet, black and dark fruit, some grainy, mouth-coating tannin, fresh acidity and balanced alcohol make this a harmonious whole.
Price: 1550NT
Score: 16.5/20
Available from: Finesse 02-2795-5615

1865 Limited Edition Syrah, Elqui Valley 2011, 14%
Grape:
Syrah
Wine-making:
Note:
This was the most exciting wine. Deep purple with more black fruit than red, a little floral/violet character and some smoked meat. This really showed how good Elqui could be for Syrah as it seems able to provide density and freshness in equal measure, a region to watch over the next ten years.
Price: 1550NT
Score: 17/20
Available from: Finesse 02-2795-5615

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Something for the Weekend 9: The effectiveness of Blind Tasting

Blind tasting is controversial. As an importer it was the final and most critical part of my selection process. Having spent time visiting producers and tasting wines in situ; it was only on my return home that a reliable assessment could be made. The blind-tasting of wines of a particular price point or region against their neighbours or competitors, helped remove some of the bias to which I was prone. I never bought wines from people I didn’t like but blind tasting also prevented me from buying wines from people I really did. It removed the emotion and romanticism I might have attached to people and places and left the raw product exposed for what it was. It is this reason why so many returning from holiday clutching their favourite wine of the trip end up being disappointed. Most wine tastes good when the sun is high and the serotonin is flowing. In the more prosaic surroundings of home, these same vinous ‘joys’ are often much less rewarding.

In the classroom, blind-tastings are frequently used as a method of torture rather than one of learning. There should always be a clear reason as to why one is tasting blind otherwise it becomes a game with too many crestfallen ‘losers’ and no real ‘winner’ – not in an educational sense anyway. Last Sunday my class enjoyed a flight of four wines (conducted blind), that worked particularly well as an exercise in varietal differences. Attempting to ‘bench-mark’ varieties or regional expressions of certain grape types is not always successful, but the Syrah, Carmenere, Malbec and Cabernet/Merlot we tasted proved deliciously up to the task. As an MW student I am keenly aware of making tastings illuminating and relevant; and these four wines, none prohibitively expensive, are worthy of some home study of your own.

Marques de Casa Concha, Syrah, D.O Buin (Maipo), Chile, 2011, 14.5%
Grape:
Syrah
Wine-making: 18 months in French Oak
Note: Classic Syrah. Blackberry fruit and fresh acidity that helps preserve this wine’s sense of purity. The oak does not get in the way and the ripe tannins complete the harmonious palate. Good value
Price: 1050NT
Score: 17/20
Available from: Creationwines.com.tw

Marques de Casa Concha, Carmenere, D.O Peumo (Rapel), Chile, 2011, 14%
Grape:
Carmenere
Wine-making: 18 months in French Oak
Note: There is a little pleasant herbaceousness here but no under-ripeness that can leave Carmenere feeling green and mean. Chocolatey and supple tannins with a touch of spice from the oak.
Price: 950NT
Score: 16.5/20
Available from: Creationwines.com.tw

Catena Alta, ‘Historic Rows’, Malbec, Mendoza, Argentina, 2009, 14%
Grape:
Malbec
Wine-making: 18 months in French oak
Note: It is rare for me to drink any one wine more than a couple of times a year but this is one of the few I could happily have a glass of every day. It smells of cherry pie, vanilla, citrus peel and has silky, super-fine tannins. Persistent and delicious, exceptionally good.
Price: 2400NT
Score:18.5/20
Available from: icheers

Cape Mentelle, Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot, Margaret River, Australia, 2012, 13.5%
Grape:
63% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Merlot, 5% Petit Verdot, 2% Cabernet Franc
Wine-making: 14 months in 20% new French oak
Note: Mint, chocolate and tar (three of my favourite smells) accompanied by a structure of fine-grained tannins help give this wine more than just a sheen of elegance. Very good value.
Price: 1200NT
Score: 17/20
Available from: P9.com.tw

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The Myth of Minerality

When asked what star sign I am, I declare myself a Virgo although I have no understanding (or belief) as to why my birthday should influence either my character or future. My relationship with the astrological is similar to the one I have with ‘minerality’ in wine. I willingly say something tastes ‘minerally’ whilst all the time knowing that this is nonsensical. Apart from the fact that vines derive the vast majority of their needs from the process of photosynthesis, all of which happens very obviously above ground (away from the minerals), the insolubility of most ‘minerals’ and their inert nature, prevent us from being able to taste or smell them.

An example of this occurs in the vineyards of Sancerre and Pouilly Fume, whose wines are often lauded for their ‘mineral’ complexity. Some are particularly rich in flint (silex as the French call it) whilst others have more chalk. On tasting countless examples from this area I found that I could indeed detect the differences in the aromatic qualities of wines grown on different soils…but neither of them tasted of chalk or flint. It is more likely that the position of the vineyard, its aspect as well as decisions made in the winery, are more profound reasons governing these differences.

At best, using the term ‘mineral’ allows the taster/producer to communicate the vigour or drive in the wine and is invariably used in a positive sense. At worst it does the exact opposite, placing a barrier between the taster and the wine as they wrestle with a concept that has no apparent basis in fact. I would never want wine to be seen as a simple beverage. Being from and of the land is one of its greatest selling points but we must be wary of perpetuating terminology that excludes rather than encourages people to try wine, the world’s finest drink.

…Having said that, below are three very ‘mineral wines’.

Henri Bourgeois, ‘La Bourgeoise’, Sancerre, 2010
Grape:
Sauvignon Blanc
Wine-making: Stainless Steel
Note: Too much Sancerre is un-deserving of the appellation. It could be argued that magnificence is a rare commodity from any region of production (however famous) but lean and green Sancerre is depressingly common. Yet this is Sancerre at its best. Mineral, almost salty, taut whilst being approachable and aromatically opulent with pink grapefruit, passionfruit, white peach, nettle and a feminine muskiness that is all ‘glow’ and no sweat.
If you are familiar with the wines of Henri Bourgeois then you will know already that they set the Sauvignon Blanc standard extremely high. If you want an exceptional example of how good Sancerre can be, I suggest you buy a bottle or two to share with someone worthy, you won’t be disappointed.
Price: 1,900NT
Score: 18.5/20
Available from: Finesse

Domaine Wachau, Terrassen Smaragd, Wachau, 13%, 2010
Grape: Riesling
Wine-making: Old casks and stainless steel
Note: Wines with the ‘Smaragd’ designation are the most full –bodied of the Wachau’s wines. They are also dry and this has an expressive peachy, almost tropical nose. Perfect with clams or abalone.
Price: 1300NT
Score: 17.5/20
Available from: Szity Wine Cellar

D’Arenberg Footbolt Shiraz, Mclaren Vale, 14.4%, 2010
Grape: Shiraz
Wine-making: 12 months in American and French oak
Note: Just to prove that ‘minerality’ is not the preserve of white wines from cooler climates. Earthy and meaty with black fruit and licorice aplenty, this is powerful but well balanced with enough acidity and tannins to support the ripe fruit. Very good value.
Price: 950NT
Score: 16.5
Available from: Creation Wine & Spirits

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The Tasting Group

Enthusiasm breeds clubs. People who love scuba-diving want to spend time in the company of others who like being submerged. Whether it is bike-riding, reading comics, listening to music or tasting wine, we all like the freedom that being a ‘member’ brings. We are allowed space to talk about our favourite subject without apology and we are able to benefit from fellow members’ passion and predilections.

And so it is with Sniff’s tasting group. We have a core of six with the occasional special guest. Meeting every two weeks, the tastings are often theme based but sometimes the greatest pleasure is derived from the decision to simply bring something we feel like sharing.

Our last tasting fell into this category and highlighted in the space of six wines the complexity of style that the vinous world has to offer. None of these wines were inexpensive but none were outlandishly priced and when the cost is shared the pleasure greatly outweighs the pain. We had representation from six different countries, one red, two whites, a rosé, one fortified and a passito wine from Italy. Fundamentally they were all delicious, whilst providing plenty of material for conversation and conjecture about how and why the winemaker had chosen to influence the wine in a particular way.

So join a club. Your knowledge and tasting ability will grow exponentially and you’ll be with people you like. What more can you ask?

Below are the six wines from our most recent tasting with brief notes and details on where to buy:

Amon-Ra, Barossa Valley, Unfiltered Shiraz, 2005, 14.5%
Grape:
Shiraz
Wine-making: 100 year old vines, 100% new, of which 80% is French and 20% American. Both barriques, and hogsheads (225 and 300 litre capacity respectively) used.
Note: Smoky, tar-like, spicy and with a lick of licorice this is an extremely dense, concentrated, full-bodied wine that retains a certain finesse. Nearly ten years old but will continue to develop for another ten years. Sense assaulting.
Price: 3,950NTD (for the 2012)
Score: 17.5/20
Available from (Taiwan): Chateau Wine & Spirits

Graham’s Six Grapes Reserve Ruby Port, NV, 20%
Grape:
Touriga Franca, Touriga Nacional, Tinta Roriz, Tinta Barroca
Wine-making: Fortified, and only a year or two in old wood to preserve the intense fruit style
Note: Excellent quality and value Reserve Ruby. Spicy, peppery dark fruit with some of the thrust and muscularity of Vintage Port without the price tag. Pair with something salty.
Price: 1,550NTD
Score: 16.5/20
Available from (Taiwan): Finesse

Château Simone, Rosé, Palette A.O.C., Provence, 2011, 14%
Grape:
Primarily Grenache, Mourvedre and Cinsault
Wine-making: Old oak casks
Note: Pale ruby colour alerts one immediately to the fact this is no ordinary Provencal rosé. Not very aromatic with just a little red cherry on the nose but this gives way to an engaging full-bodied wine with a rich, cherry and herb fruit core. Not just for Summer and structured enough for food. I would like this with shrimp dumplings.
Price: 1690NTD
Score: 16.5/20
Available from (Taiwan): New Century Wine & Spirits

Vina Tondonia, Reserva Rioja Blanco, 1998, 12.5%
Grape:
90% Viura, 10% Malvasia
Wine-making: 6 years in barrel affording the wine significant complexity.
Note: I love traditional white Riojas and this has plenty of deliciousness wrapped within its mildly oxidative body. Peach, green pineapple, flowers and a stave or two of oak make this an alluring glass. If you never usually drink white wine you might want to practice on easier, more overtly fruity examples before graduating onto this more ‘challenging’ style. Perfect with an oyster omelette.
Price: 1800NTD
Score: 17/20
Available from (Taiwan): Vinaria Wine Cellar

Markus Molitor, Wehlener Klosterberg, Pinot Blanc, Mosel, 2012, 13%
Grape:
Pinot Blanc
Wine-making: Aged in an Islay single malt cask
Note: Remarkable nose with a dominant seaweed, iodine tang that is briny and very Scottish in origin. Yet this is not just a vinous oddity. There is lovely palate weight, bright acid and fruit purity that is as expected from the region. If you like a tot of Ardbeg then buy a bottle of this.
Price: 1600NTD
Score: 17/20
Available from (Taiwan): WineTeen

Montalpruno Vin Santo del Chianti D.O.C., 2006, 15.5%
Grape:
Trebbiano & Malvasia
Wine-making: Made using semi-dried grapes
Note: Very fresh tasting Vin Santo that is dominated by the aroma of roasting pistachios. Sweet but with balancing acidity and persistent. Delicious with cheese, nuts or cake.
Price: 2,400NTD for 500ml
Score: 17/20
Available from (Taiwan): P9.com.tw

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